History and critical race theory

By Christopher Harper

Amid the debate over teaching critical race theory or CRT, I decided to search for how a K-12 curriculum would look.

I found a website for Learning for Justice, an organization founded by the Southern Poverty Law Center. See https://www.learningforjustice.org/

Many people should recognize the law center as a leader in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The organization maintains that more than 500,000 individuals access the teaching materials on a continuing basis. 

Under “A Framework for Teaching American Slavery,” Learning for Justice argues that “most students leave high school without an adequate understanding of the role slavery played in the development of the United States—or how its legacies still influence us today. In an effort to remedy this, we developed a comprehensive guide for teaching and learning this critical topic at all grade levels.” Note: I would argue that most students leave high school without an adequate understanding of anything to do with U.S. history.

The “Teaching Hard History” curriculum for kindergarten through 12th grade includes 10 basic tenets:

1. Slavery, which Europeans practiced before they invaded the Americas, was important to all colonial powers and existed in all North American colonies. Note: Many Black African countries also engaged in slavery–as did the many empires, such as the Romans.

2. Slavery and the slave trade were central to the development and growth of the colonial economies and what is now the United States. Note: Not all colonial economies depended on slaves.

3. Protections for slavery were embedded in the founding documents; enslavers dominated the federal government, Supreme Court, and Senate from 1787 through 1860. Note: There was a lot of other good stuff in the founding documents.

4. Slavery was an institution of power designed to create profit for the enslavers and break the will of the enslaved and was a relentless quest for profit abetted by racism. Note: I wouldn’t disagree with this statement.

5. Enslaved people resisted the efforts of their enslavers to reduce them to commodities in both revolutionary and everyday ways. Note: I learned about John Brown in the 1960s in high school. I assume his rebellion and others are still taught in schools.

6. The experience of slavery varied depending on time, location, crop, labor performed, size of slaveholding, and gender. Note: I couldn’t disagree with this statement, although I’m not sure what exactly it means in terms of a school curriculum.

7. Slavery was the central cause of the Civil War. Note: I would hope that all students, like me in the 1960s, learns this truism.

8. Slavery shaped the fundamental beliefs of Americans about race and whiteness, and white supremacy was both a product and legacy of slavery. Note: I would call this statement a gross generalization.

9. Enslaved and freed people worked to maintain cultural traditions while building new ones that sustain communities and impact the larger world. Note: I don’t know, but it’s probably true.

10. By knowing how to read and interpret the sources that tell the story of American slavery, we gain insight into some of what enslaving and enslaved Americans aspired to, created, thought, and desired. Note: It would seem better to address current issues than these historical ones.

The organization provides various materials, including lesson plans, videos, podcasts, and consultations with critical race theory proponents, to teach students about these issues. 

Education Week, which broadly supports critical race theory in schools, provides some background about the debate over the inclusion of CRT into schools.  

“Critical race theory emerged out of postmodernist thought, which tends to be skeptical of the idea of universal values, objective knowledge, individual merit, Enlightenment rationalism, and liberalism—tenets that conservatives tend to hold dear,” EdWeek’s Stephen Sawchuk wrote recently. “In history, the debates have focused on the balance among patriotism and American exceptionalism, on one hand, and the country’s history of exclusion and violence towards Indigenous people and the enslavement of African Americans on the other—between its ideals and its practices.” See https://www.edweek.org/leadership/what-is-critical-race-theory-and-why-is-it-under-attack/2021/05

That seems to me to be a fair assessment of precisely what the debate is about. I would fall on the side of promoting universal values, objective knowledge, and individual merit. I’m not so sure about Enlightenment rationalism and liberalism. I would hope the first set of values are not only held by conservatives.

5 thoughts on “History and critical race theory

  1. well your ignorance starts right in the begining …

    “Many people should recognize the law center as a leader in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.”

    SPLC was founded in August 1971 …

    So “Many people” (you included) are ignorant …

  2. The splc losts its way long ago.
    I do appreciate the look at the materials and the assessment.
    Wouldn’t associate with anybody who would use them for to teach.
    Yes we are in the 21st century as was said during that clinton fiasco, move on.


  3. “7. Slavery was the central cause of the Civil War.”

    This is self-evident for the motivations of Northerners. However, virtually no regular Confederate soldier, and very few of their officers owned slaves, so the defense of slavery was not their prime motivation. This was an era when one’s primary loyalty was to one’s state, especially in the South, so the claims that Southerners were defending their homes, not slavery, rings true.

    A better explanation is that the Industrial Revolution in the North was competing with a feudal South for the control of the western territories and, consequently, control of Congress. Slavery was a convenient excuse for the Northern elites.

    PS. Look up John Brown’s activities in Kansas. He was an early ISIS type. A brutal mass murderer. That Northern elites idolized him is simply part and parcel of the ancient Puritan hypocrisy and totalitarianism. Or haven’t you hear about Portland?

  4. A proposed curriculum on race or slavery is not critical race theory, so critiques of one curriculum is not a criticism of CRT. Any curriculum can be criticized for what it includes and what it leaves out. It has to be said that this proposed curriculum is not an inclusive US History curriculum. It deals with a major part of US History, however.

    A point on your note on #10: I think you missed the point. If you are interested in history, after all, you have to at some point deal with why people did what they did, and one of the ways to do that is to read and critically analyze the source material.

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